When we were in grad school in the late ’90s, Greg coined a nickname for me: Bull. He would say it with some flair, emphasizing the “B” and drawling out the rest. It was meant to be ironic, a bull in a china shop. Here I was, with skin some said was like porcelain and petite, non-threatening looking body, but man did I have some capacity to bang around, break things, tune out.
Back in college, I would go barreling down Broadway, speed-walking, barely slowing as I weaved between other pedestrians, not making eye contact, not apologizing for the inevitable brushed shoulder or near-collision. In the warmer months, maybe I’d be eating a cone of soft frozen yogurt, which invariably some man would look at and then at me and say, “Mmmm, that looks good.” But mostly, nobody was bothering me; I was a speeding bullet.
My senior year, I went on a walking meditation with Thich Nhat Hanh. It was remarkably different from my m.o. For one thing, there was a group of us. And while in some ways, my solo power stride through Riverside Park was meditative – moving my body is still one of my best ways of separating out the wheat from the chaff – this was markedly different. It was slow. Intentional. Very much NOT bumping into people or being separate from everything around me. This walk was about noticing. Noticing each step. Noticing the breath. Noticing the thoughts. Noticing the branches, leaves dancing near roots. Noticing the body of people and moving together, on purpose. Noticing, in my case, the impulse to break into a run. Noticing the restlessness of body and mind, how new this was.
As for Thich Nhat Hanh, I felt his presence as love. Undistracted, unobscured, available. Shining. Nothing between him and me, the group, the trees. Available to joy and sorrow. I don’t want to romanticize him. What I’m referring to doesn’t even need romanticization; it just is. Just is. Is what happens as a result of that much practice. Which makes me realize, hopefully I might add, that it is something I can and you can experience too. Being that present, that available.
My sitting practice has settled into a predictably irregular rhythm, kind of like a heart you know is beating but has an arrhythmia you’ve come to expect every few beats. Sangha takes many forms. A friend and I sit, or intend to, on Friday mornings. Sometimes we talk more than we sit, but there is always that twenty minutes or so when I understand why it’s called taking refuge. Such a relief. As hard as it may be to sit my ass down on a cushion (or rather, three mismatched pillows stacked up into a makeshift little tower), there is nothing as liberating as facing a blank wall.
Sometimes, I still catch myself crashing around. The “bull” nickname has fallen away except for the occasions when one of us uses it wryly. Now I wonder how to put it all together. I move through space. I take up room and over time come to trust that I can do that without breaking things, without harming myself or others. When I feel myself checking out, when I find that I’m so far gone and need retrieving, I try to remember that sitting down is indeed a magic bullet (and I don’t subscribe to magic bullets).
Why this, today? I’m leaving town Friday for a week. It’s early Monday morning, and my to-do list is growing both on paper and in my head. Can I remember to hold both – movement and stillness – as I go through the day? How will you?